Some people have it worse than me

I’m on a plane taking me back to Vancouver from the Atheist Alliance International 2009 conference in California that finished earlier today. I’m thoroughly exhausted, but feeling very happy for having attended, particularly because this morning I gained a new perspective on my skeptical activities that I want to write about.

The talks I went to ranged from somewhat interesting to absolutely brilliant. I got to hear speak and shake the hands of scientists, intellectuals and skeptics that I admire, including Daniel Dennet, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Eugenie Scott. I also met Michael Shermer, who wasn’t speaking or on the schedule but arrived on the second day to promote the Skeptics Society. I also briefly met Brian Keith Dalton, the creator, writer and star of the online satire-comedy ‘Mr. Deity’ (on which Michael Shermer makes a guest appearance in a recent episode). I was having my book signed by Michael while they were talking. When I thanked Michael for plugging this new skeptics blog you’re reading, at his appearance in Toronto the previous day, Brian asked me what ‘Skeptic North’ was. I briefly explained and they both wished us luck, which was great!

But what had the biggest impact on me were two unknown speakers.

I like to find out what’s going on outside my own culture/society/region with regards to the activists campaigning for reason against the pernicious aspects of religion and superstition and pseudoscience, so I attended a talk on Friday by a member of the online group Arab Atheist Network, and one this morning by Gerardo Romero, an organizer of a Mexican atheist group. While both their talks focused on atheism in their countries and communities what they had to say was also relevant to the broader subjects of critical thinking and skepticism.

Like the apostate author Ibn Warraq, the member of the Arab Atheist Network used a pseudonym (Alpharabius) and refused photography to protect his and his family’s safety. He spoke about the current state of atheism in the Arab world, the stigma, and the risk of death by being open about their lack of belief, giving examples of apostates and ‘heretics’ from antiquity to the 21st century who have been assassinated for their beliefs, and explained the cultural aspect of the motivation for the killings. To the end of his talk ‘Alpharabius’ answered questions as to what people in developed countries could do to help groups in the Arab world, such as help support the local efforts that already exist by providing them with scientific and rational resources and aiding translation efforts. He also discussed what they should definitely not do (Don’t invade us!, he joked), like try to impose different values directly on people from outside the country, or needlessly and constantly criticize and denigrate Islam, without any thought for practical solutions to problems.

Gerardo Romero talked about the attitudes towards atheists in Mexico, the poor sex education and the attempts of Catholic conservatives to bastardize science education. Their group has been around for a couple of years, largely focusing on raising awareness and building a community but they’re now looking for funding to produce sex education materials for public high school students and other projects. He came to the conference hoping that he could find some sponsors and I’m happy to say that people got up immediately and asked how they could donate. He seems like a motivated guy and I hope he’s successful in his admirable goals.

As I was waiting for my plane, I thought about Gerardo’s and Alpharabius’ talks, and realized how lucky we are. However we may bemoan and decry the sorry state of our own societies’ varying and various problems of a lack of critical thought, superstitious beliefs, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience in Canada, the US, Australia, the UK, and similar places, we should never forget to consider ourselves incredibly lucky that in our efforts we have tremendous resources that others do not. Those who are standing up to fight against the same problems in the third world and developing countries are doing so in the face of far greater opposition and with far fewer resources in both supporters and funding. While so many of us have met at The Amazing Meeting this year or at similar events and made new friends and contacts across the continent and the world, that is a luxury that is simply out of reach for the majority of those who find themselves feeling isolated, derided, or even in danger for being a lone voice of reason in their community.

We must always continue to work against the forces of irrationality at home, trying to educate the public, correct misinformation, and counter the parasites taking advantage of the vulnerable and gullible, but I think equally important is to remember those less fortunate, yet just as motivated and capable, of our fellow skeptics and rationalists and do our best to support their efforts too whenever we can, even if it’s by just sending an encouraging email.

To end on a lighter note, here’s a song by Tim Minchin I was reminded of:

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  • Jamie Williams

    Jamie is a Vancouver resident and past contributor to Skeptic North.